The Pharisees had gradually elevated themselves into an ecclesiastical hierarchy who were the custodians of the law and religion. They had come to regard themselves as especially favoured, a privileged class- not only the custodians but the dispensers of all religious knowledge- and therefore of religion. The people, in their estimation, were of a lower intellectual and religious order, possessing no capabilities in connection with religion or morals, dependent therefore upon their superiors in these matters.
This state of affairs that had gradually come about was productive of two noticeable results: a religious starvation and stagnation on the part of the great mass of the people on the one hand, and the creation of a haughty, self-righteous and domineering ecclesiastical hierarchy on the other. In order for a clear understanding of some of Jesus' sayings and teachings, some of which constitute a very vital part of his ministry, it is necessary to understand clearly what this condition was.
Another important fact that sheds much light upon the nature of the ministry of Jesus is to be found, as has already been intimated, in the political and the economic condition of the people of the time. The Jewish nation had been subjugated and were under the domination of Rome. Rome in connection with Israel, as in connection with all conquered peoples, was a hard master. Taxes and tribute, tribute and taxes, could almost be said to be descriptive of her administration of affairs.
She was already in her degenerate stage. Never perhaps in the history of the world had men been so ruled by selfishness, greed, military power and domination, and the pomp and display of material wealth. Luxury, indulgence, over-indulgence, vice. The inevitable concomitant followed- a continually increasing moral and physical degeneration. An increasing luxury and indulgence called for an increasing means to satisfy them. Messengers were sent and additional tribute was levied. Pontius Pilate was the Roman administrative head or governor in Judea at the time. Tiberius Caesar was the Roman Emperor.
Rome at this time consisted of a few thousand nobles and people of station- freemen- and hundreds of thousands of slaves. Even her campaigns in time became virtual raids for plunder. She conquered- and she plundered those whom she conquered. Great numbers from among the conquered peoples were regularly taken to Rome and sold into slavery. Judea had not escaped this. Thousands of her best people had been transported to Rome and sold into slavery. It was never known where the blow would fall next; what homes would be desolated and both sons and daughters sent away into slavery. No section, no family could feel any sense of security. A feeling of fear, a sense of desolation pervaded everywhere.
There was a tradition, which had grown into a well-defined belief, that a Deliverer would be sent them, that they would be delivered out of the hands of their enemies and that their oppressors would in turn be brought to grief. There was also in the section round about Judaea a belief, which had grown until it had become well-nigh universal, that the end of the world, or the end of the age, was speedily coming, that then there would be an end of all earthly government and that the reign of Jehovah- the kingdom of God- would be established. These two beliefs went hand in hand. They were kept continually before the people, and now and then received a fresh impetus by the appearance of a new prophet or a new teacher, whom the people went gladly out to hear. Of this kind was John, the son of a priest, later called John the Baptist.
After his period of preparation, he came out of the wilderness of Judaea, and in the region about the Jordan with great power and persuasiveness, according to the accounts, he gave utterance to the message: Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Forsake all earthly things; they will be of avail but a very short time now, turn ye from them and prepare yourselves for the coming of the Kingdom of God. The old things will speedily pass away; all things will become new. Many went out to hear him and were powerfully appealed to by the earnest, rugged utterances of this new preacher of righteousness and repentance.
His name and his message spread through all the land of Judea and the country around the Jordan. Many were baptised by him there, he making use of this symbolic service which had been long in use by certain branches of the Jewish people, especially the order of the Essenes.
Among those who went out to hear John and who accepted baptism at his hands was Jesus, the son of Joseph and Mary, whose home was at Nazareth. It marks also the beginning of his own public ministry, for which he evidently had been in preparation for a considerable time.
It seems strange that we know so little of the early life of one destined to exert such a powerful influence upon the thought and the life of the world. In the gospel of Mark, probably the most reliable, because the nearest to his time, there is no mention whatever of his early life. The first account is where he appears at John's meetings. Almost immediately thereafter begins his own public ministry.
In the gospel of Luke we have a very meagre account of him. It is at the age of twelve. The brief account gives us a glimpse into the lives of his father and his mother, Joseph and Mary; showing that at that time they were not looked upon as in any way different from all of the inhabitants of their little community, Nazareth, the little town in Galilee- having a family of several sons and daughters, and that Jesus, the eldest of the family, grew in stature and in knowledge, as all the neighbouring children grew; but that he, even at an early age, showed that he had a wonderful aptitude for the things of the spirit. I reproduce Luke's brief account here: " Now, his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem, after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem: and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day's journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
"And when they saw him they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my father's business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man."
Nothing could be more interesting than to know the early life of Jesus. There are various theories as to how this was spent, that is, as to what his preparation was- the facts of his life, in addition to his working with his father at his trade, that of a carpenter; but we know nothing that has the stamp of historical accuracy upon it. Of his entire life, indeed, including the period of his active ministry, from thirty to nearly thirty-three, it is but fair to presume that we have at best but a fragmentary account in the Gospel narratives. It is probable that many things connected with his ministry, and many of his sayings and teachings, we have no record of at all.
It is probable that in connection with his preparation he spent a great deal of time alone, in the quiet, in communion with his Divine Source, or as the term came so naturally to him, with God, his Father- God, our Father, for that was his teaching- my God and your God. The many times that we are told in the narratives that he went to the mountain alone, would seem to justify us in this conclusion. Anyway, it would be absolutely impossible for anyone to have such a vivid realisation of his essential oneness with the Divine, without much time spent in such a manner that the real life could evolve into its Divine likeness, and then mould the outer life according to this ideal or pattern.